Faith and Politics From The West Wing

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A few months ago my friend Jason Micheli recorded a conversation for our podcast Crackers & Grape Juice with the former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry about what it was (and is) like to balance faith and politics while working in the West Wing. McCurry served as the Press Secretary during the Clinton years and enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary following his time working in the administration. The conversation offers a lens into the inner workings of the most powerful office in the land while also addressing the deep challenge of being a political Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From West Wing To Wesley 

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The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

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A few weeks ago I loaded up my recording equipment with Teer Hardy and we drove down to the Virginia Conference office in Glen Allen to interview our Bishop, Sharma Lewis. 3/4 of the Crackers & Grape Juice team were able to interview her last year, and we wanted to find our how her time in the episcopacy has been, and where she’s sees us moving in the coming years. Our conversation covered a range of topics including the new vision for the Annual Conference, responses to racism in the church, and the Bishop even offered her thoughts on Jason Micheli‘s book Cancer Is FunnyIf you want to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword.

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The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

I’m in my fifth year of full-time ministry and I just received my first piece of anonymous “hate” mail. I use the word “hate” loosely, because at no point in the letter am I threatened or made to feel afraid, but the person clearly hated a sermon of mine and took the time to write a full page with bolded words, underlined sentences, and even a section entirely in the color red.

On Sunday I preached a sermon about why Christians pray and in it I said: “…the missing demographic from the church, the so-called millennial generation, are missing because they (we) have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves people feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference. But that’s the thing: the church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and the valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God. And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down… I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has answered our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us until we have eyes to see what God has done.”

And today, Wednesday, I received an anonymous letter ripping apart my claim that the Church doesn’t exist to make a difference. Basically, he/she feels that the church is only one of the ways for an individual to experience God in the world, and the the church has failed to take care of people in need, and therefore it’s up to people like the writer to support the needs left unattended in the world through political means and civic organizations.

I wish the person had included their name, or at least a way to respond to their criticism, such that we could have a conversation about the subject. But without any way to do so, I decided to put it up here on the blog in hopes that it reaches him/her:

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The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written our plainly for all to read and understand: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Go therefore and make disciples…). But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews; it results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with people already in the building, it results in infantile/surface level discipleship, and it results in working for the numbers instead of the kingdom.

And then we have this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our only focus? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Today we are so steeped in the allure and promises of our political ideologies that we often superimpose them onto the church. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But look at what makes the church the church: Jesus Christ. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through wandering Israelites, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is the better place God has made in the world because many of us worship our government, or social programs, the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about local civic organizations as if they are going to bring us salvation that we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus already brought.

Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again or Make The World A Better Place. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of civic organizations that work to change the world, nor is it meant to be a critique of policies of the political right or left. Neither is it a denial of the importance of caring for the last, least, and lost in our communities. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that organizations and political parties determine our lives more than the living God.

Yes, everyone is free to use their money and their time and their talents as they see fit. In our country we worship this freedom to a frightening degree (However, we tend to only relish in our freedom to say and do what we want, and the moment we encounter the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.). We can try to do what we can to make the world a better and safer place.

But being a Christian is not about (political) freedom or being safe. After all, we Christians worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Following Jesus means believing the greatest freedom and power we’ve ever received did not come from the Declaration of Independence, or from giving money to a group like Kiwanis, but through Jesus Christ who died on a cross.

I do sincerely apologize for making a claim about the church not making a difference in the world. After all, I am a pastor because the church changed my life. But I also recognize that for as much as I want to attribute the difference I have experienced to the church, Jesus is the one who made all the difference.

We spend so much time thinking and living into a strange reality that assumes the church exists to serve the members of the church, or to make the world a better place. But that doesn’t have much to do with Jesus. Any political party and any civic organization can do lots of things to make their members happier and safer and better (at least in terms familiar to the world).

But the church, as the body of Christ, exists to be the better place God has already made in the world. God in Christ transformed the powers and principalities such that the world has been turned upside down. God in Christ captivates our hearts and souls by proclaim who we really are and whose we really are. God in Christ is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God in Christ has made all the difference.

Pub(lic) Theology – What’s Right With The Church?

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Before the beginning of the Virginia Annual Conference in June, the team from Crackers & Grape Juice hosted a pub theology event at Bull Island Brewing Company in Hampton, Va. The evening was full of good music, good beer, and good conversation. Our guest was the profane and profound Jeffrey Pugh who talked a lot about what it means to be a Christian during the era of Trump. This episode is part two of our Pub Theology event in which we field questions from the crowd. If you would like to subscribe to the podcast or listen to the episode you can do so here: Pub(lic) Theology – What’s Right With The Church? 

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Pub(lic) Theology – Trump Isn’t Hitler

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Before the beginning of the Virginia Annual Conference in June, the team from Crackers & Grape Juice hosted a pub theology event at Bull Island Brewing Company in Hampton, Va. The evening was full of good music, good beer, and good conversation. Our guest was the profane and profound Jeffrey Pugh who talked a lot about what it means to be a Christian during the era of Trump. If you would like to subscribe to the podcast or listen to the episode you can do so here: Pub Theology (Part 1) – Trump Isn’t Hitler 

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On Not Looking Like A Pastor

Stanley Hauerwas is known for telling his seminary students that they should never marry couples off the street and they should never do a funeral in a funeral home. His instructions to soon-to-be-pastors can sound a bit harsh the first time around but they are worthy commands.

Pastors should not preside over funerals in funeral homes because we are supposed to have Services of Death and Resurrection in the same place that baptisms take place. Our life with God begins in baptism, and finds its new beginning in our death; those two things should not be separated.

However, in my time as a pastor I’ve done a handful of funerals in funeral homes simply because the family was afraid of the cost of having the funeral home transport the body/urn and they were overwhelmed by the total cost to begin with.

But the prohibition to never marry someone off the street is one that I have taken very seriously.

In our current culture, the divorce rate is creeping above 50% which means that by the time I retire from ministry, there’s a chance that half of the marriages I presided over will have already come to an end. This terrifies me.

In response to the continually growing trend of separations and divorces, I have made a concerted effort to spend as much time with couples before their wedding so that whether I knew them before their request or not, they will not be strangers by the time I stand with them by the altar. I insist on having a minimum of three pre-marital counseling sessions and I reserve the right to not perform the marriage if I feel either something is wrong, or that I am not the one to bring them together.

Of all the questions that I ask, (and I do ask a lot) the one that makes couples the most uncomfortable is not the question about sex, or even how they handle money, but about why they want me to perform the wedding. And I don’t mean me personally, but why do they want it to be a religious service.

I ask this question because it is a lot easier (and cheaper) to drive down to the local courthouse and be married by a justice of the peace. There’s no premarital counseling involved, there’s no need to have a packed room full of people and for a liturgy. So, why have a religious ceremony?

Last night I was having a pre-martial counseling session with a couple whose wedding is coming up, and upon asking the question the soon-to-be husband very honestly answered that he is suspicious of organized religion, that my involvement has less to do with his choice than with the family’s choice, but that in the end he wanted it to be religious (and wanted me to do it) because I don’t seem like a normal pastor.

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Drinking Methodist “Champagne” at the Easter Sunrise Service

I hear that kind of thing all the time. I’ll be at a local coffee shop working on a sermon when someone will strike up a conversation and when it moves to the topic of employment, and they learn I’m a United Methodist pastor, they’ll say something like “Are you sure?”

Or I’ll be at a party with mutual friends and when I’m introduced, as a pastor from a nearby church, people will always hide their beer cans or glasses of wine behind their back until they see that I am holding one as well.

Or when I drop off my son at day care after months of learning about the teachers and other parents I’ll be wearing a clergy collar and someone will ask me if it’s a joke.

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor.

And I think this is a good thing.

I think it is a good thing precisely because of what Dr. Hauerwas taught me: Never marry people off the street. When I am invited into the intimacy that is shared between two people prior to their wedding, when I can have real and vulnerable conversations with them about the sanctity of marriage and God’s ultimate role in it, I can break down these strange stereotypes about what a pastor is supposed to look and sound like.

Being myself, rather than having a presumed pastor-like personality, helps to show the world that Christians (and the church) are not what the world makes of us. We Christians are not all like the Westboro Baptists who are forever picketing certain events, nor are we all like the gay-shaming ultra-conservatives who belittle people for their identity, nor are we all like the quiet, antiquated, and archaic pastors from television shows and movies.

We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world.

So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.

The Christian Problem With (Nuclear) War

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

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War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen. And in response to President Trump’s words, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.